COVID conversions: Novel ways we used our outdoor and public spaces in Midland this year

If 2020 has taught us anything it’s that to survive, we must adapt. You can also throw in a side of urgency to problem solve and a dose of optimism that there are different ways of doing things.

And Midland did just that this year.

We got outside, opened up outdoor dining and still made art. The hope is that we will continue that ingenuity as a community, and more importantly as a team.

In that spirit, here are three ways we adapted to the curveballs of 2020.

Great Lakes Loons
This past spring, many of the Great Lakes Loons staff were closely watching what was happening at the MLB level as the Los Angeles Dodgers were preparing for how COVID-19 would impact their season. So, they knew the 2020 Loons season would be subsequently assessed, as all sports teams would be.

“You started seeing where operations were being impacted, interactions between fans and players were limited or stopped,” says Chris Mundhenk, vice president and chief revenue officer of the Great Lakes Loons. “So, we knew it had the potential to be bigger than we initially realized those first few weeks. The Loons staff all switched to working from home for safety and we soon watched everything fall in line with other sports and from state to state.

“The thing about baseball, whether that’s the Loons or another MLB team, having that fan engagement is so important. For us here especially, the fan experience is something we pride ourselves on, so the team got to brainstorming on how we could continue that under any number of constraints that came our way,” says Mundhenk.

Taking batting practice at Dow Diamond.

And the fan experience they delivered on, that’s for sure.

What evolved was a series of personal experiences on the field and a frequent summer event title “Beer Batter”, where baseball fans of all ages got the rare occurrence of having a true on-field experience, with beer for those batters who are age appropriate.

“I give our staff credit for what we were able to do this year,” says Mundhenk. “This was the brainchild of a few of us including Eric Ramseyer, our director of business application and analytics, and Cameron Block, our promotions manager. Together, we came up with some fantastic ways we can keep that fan engagement alive in a year of unknowns.”

“It’s not about the economics, it’s about the experience. We want to give our fans that true game-day, baseball experience, even if that looks a little different this year,” says Mundhenk. “That’s baseball and what we’re about.”

Two young boys listen to a personal message from general manager John Shoemaker.

They’ve had people of all ages partake.

For a mere $20, fans could start out coming through the clubhouse and onto the field. They also walk in to a welcome video from Loons general manager John Shoemaker welcoming them to the experience and the stadium.

Well over 100 people have participated individually, and the Loons have created a spin-off event for companies, organizations and even fun for youth baseball teams as seasons wind down. The corporate special event option for companies and their employees was so popular this year, it is something the Loons will likely carry on into subsequent years as an experience.

The events were planned with food and beverage in mind and was a good side step in the absence of a season.

“We are hopeful for next season and I think the team has been able to pull off some amazing things as we all navigate this year,” says Mundhenk.

Mundhenk and his team have a few other things in the works, including allowing groups of 100 to enjoy and partake in local football events.

“We have happily partnered with MCTV to offer the games to more people,” says Mundhenk. “We realized when the restrictions came out around attendance, there were going to be many fans and parents left out, so we are happy to announce we are planning to accommodate another group to safely support high school football this fall. We have all the precautions in place and can more than accommodate 100 people for a watch party.”

The first game you’ll be able to view from Dow Diamond is this Friday’s game of Dow High vs Saginaw High. Next Friday, October 2 MCTV and the Loons will be broadcasting Midland High vs Mt. Pleasant. And the big game of Midland High vs Dow High will be broadcast on October 23.

Midland Area Farmers Market
One of the most beloved staples of the spring, summer and fall in Midland is the breadth and diverse vendors that make up the Midland Area Farmers Market.

The market has grown consistently over the years and summer market-goers know the traditional market down by the Tridge sees wall to wall traffic on Saturdays.

The Midland Area Farmers Market was able to relocate in June to the main parking lot at Dow Diamond.

This year, with the constraints of social distancing and some of the residual damage from the flood in May, the market’s existing location had some limitations.

The team at the Midland Business Alliance brainstormed ways to keep the market going despite the flood, temporarily operating with a drive-through model until restrictions allowed them to open up to a walking model for the market on June 10 this year.

To accommodate for additional social distancing space, the market was able to be relocated for the season to the main parking lot of Dow Diamond for Wednesdays and Saturdays, with the Loons regular season on hold this year.

The move has been a good one, supporting similar numbers of market patrons compared to 2019, on average. The comparison is a bit of a hard one, because the traditional market at the Tridge is circular and has open entry points, making it more difficult to count all entries and exits and the 2020 market was roped off for one entry and exit only. Still, the numbers for 2020 were strong and supported the demand, even in times of constraints.

The move made for better social distancing and safe entry and exit points.

“We think this year turned out really well despite some of the limitations we had to work with and the market impacts the community in so many positive ways,” says Emily Lyons, director of Innovation and Small Business and manager of the Midland Area Farmers Market. “We felt we found a safe way to open and operate this year and we are so thankful to be able to utilize the parking lot at Dow Diamond, despite being really sad there is no baseball this season.”

“Some of our vendors weren’t able to return this year because they were impacted by the flooding, or were just too uncertain in March and April this year to register, but we ended up getting most of our vendors back this year and even a few new ones too,” says Lyons.

Bill Kehoe of Udder Bliss Farms joined the market this year and makes the drive to Midland each Wednesday and Saturday from Rodney, Michigan. Fellow first-time vendors Deana Mason, the creator of Plant-Based Eats & Treats and Meghan and Jennifer Richardson of Moon Macarons help round out new additions and sweet treats and Eric Shevchenko of Old World Farms is a new addition of organic meats and vegetables.

In many ways, the change in the market this year made lemonade out of some pretty big lemons.

The moved proved fruitful and also accommodated more parking.

“We’ve tripled our 2019 amount of EBT sales this year, so we are thankful to be able to bring fresh, high-quality produce to those in need,” says Lyons. “And we’ve also had vendors report significant increases in sales, like one of our flower vendors for example has seen triple the bouquets this year, because people are home more often.”

The feedback from both vendors and market goers has been positive as well and the temporary location shift has brought into question the long-term needs of the community and whether it might be the right time to address the year-round market conversation again.

“This year has shown us there are always possibilities and innovation and ingenuity are possible,” says Lyons. “We continue to see more traffic and new vendors each year, so it’s time to consider the future needs of the market and the community.”

Larkin Beer Garden
Earlier this year, the Michigan Baseball Foundation and Great Lakes Loons donated $30,000 for COVID-19 relief split equally between the Midland, Bay and Saginaw Community Foundations. In addition, following the flooding events in May, the Michigan Baseball Foundation made an additional $10,000 donation to the Midland Area Community Foundation for flood relief efforts.

Each summer and fall, Larkin Beer Garden regularly partners with local non-profits to sponsor our licensing and, in turn, the non-profit partner benefits from the net proceeds. 

Larkin Beer Garden moved to Dow Diamond to accommodate for safety this year.

“Since opening in 2016, Larkin Beer Garden has generated over $75,000 in proceeds for our non-profit partners,” says Michelle Pilaske, director of communications and programs with the Michigan Baseball Foundation. “This season, we relocated to Dow Diamond in part, to relocated to an outdoor space where social distancing could be accommodated.”

The same great libations and live tunes played all summer Wednesday through Friday, just in a little bit different location, often with the Loons Beer Batter fun heard in the background on some nights.

Instead of the typical food trucks we’ve all know from years past, the venue collaborated with several local restaurants to still be able to provide food. Vendors included Midland Brewing Company, Great Lakes Loons, Proper Taco and Pizza Sam’s so far this season, which helped to support local restaurants during COVID-19.

Three cases, where we’ve seen that with a little imagination, the right partners and utilizing our outdoor spaces, we’ve been able to adapt as a community.

And it is that same spirit we will need to take us into 2021 as we change and grow.

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Read more articles by Courtney Soule.

Courtney is a longtime Midland resident and enjoys telling the story of the community's evolution. She ran Catalyst Midland as the publication's managing editor from October 2017 through September 2020. Her favorite topics are interesting people, change makers, outdoor recreation and design. Aside from Catalyst, her published work can be found various places including Elephant Journal, Thought Catalog and a number of other websites, papers, menus and the occasional one-liner.